That’s all Tomás had learned after traveling with a pack of them for a fortnight. His bones ached from sleeping among them on bare ground, like a dog the devil kicked. With his wit slowed by the knitting of his broken limbs and ribs, it had taken Tomás all fourteen nights to move close to the particular renegade priest whose pocket Tomás wanted to examine. Each night Tomás watched the filthy punxor take a packet of letters from his satchel and wrap it in the corner of his blanket to make a pillow.
After trading places among slumbering pilgrims, that night Tomás spread his camp kit close enough to pry the packet from the sleeping man’s possession. Edging toward where the crab-nosed priest slept, Tomás paused, lying still as a stone for sixty heartbeats before wiggling a hair closer, while toothache plagued him and the poorly healed scars on his face begged to be scratched.
The cry of a nighthawk sounded like his father laughing, just beyond the hedge of thorns.
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Avraham the trader glanced up as the morning sun broke over the city walls. White-gold light shimmered on the baubles scattered across his workbench.
“Dung, dead dogs, and cabbage-ends all ready to roast again in the sun,” Avraham said, yawning as he settled his cap in place. His guest had roused him too early in the day. “The air hasn’t moved in Toulouse since Shavuot.”
“Your festival of first fruits?” his impatient visitor asked, as if attempting to be polite.
Across the square, a barefoot farm-boy tapped the rump of a desultory donkey with a stick as they picked their way across cobbles still warm from the previous day’s sun. Avraham’s early-morning visitor, a young Toulousain donzel dressed in traveler’s leathers, winced in disgust at the sound of one of those black-robed street preachers shouting in the marketplace.
“It was Satan who shaped Man from clay. That evil God made Man’s carnal nature.”
“Sancta Maria, we have to listen to that nonsense all the day long,” his young visitor groused. “Endless foolish declarations, like souls that migrate from beasts to men. A woman who conceives a child brings evil to the world. It doesn’t warrant being called philosophy, much less heresy.
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Pascal, the porter at the monastery St-Pere de Selva, lingered outside the chapel, his ancient bones as cold as the stone walls. Fat sodden flakes of snow piled in the courtyard, making his chores a misery. While the monks shivered in their boots during the dawn prayers, that chiflado abbot repeated the three psalms.
Chiflado. That’s what Pascal’s old granny called a man touched by the moon who carried more pride than kindness in his pockets. The abbot chirped on, preaching about honor and apparitions of saints and the coming hordes of Saracens.
Pascal expected neither saint nor Saracen to appear in this frozen place. Just flocks of knights with crusader crosses stitched on their surcoats, knocking on his gate to demand provender, as if spelt fell from heaven like manna to feed horses and monks and knights. It was just as Pascal’s granny always said, “A man out seeking glory is ducking his chores.”
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The formerly handsome Tuma Ibn Mikhail—the name Tomás of Morella was called while spying in Al-Andalus—disarmed his foe and pinned him in the dust under a lemon tree in the courtyard.
“I do not admit defeat.” His cousin Rashid grinned, his teeth flashing white in the dusky twilight. The scent of lemons over-whelmed the senses after a day baking in the heat of June.
“You have no weapon.” Tomás tightened his grip. “I have conquered the caliph’s best vizier.”
“Ah, but you dropped your sword too.” Rashid, slick with sweat from sparring, wiggled but couldn’t break free from Tomás’s superior hold.
“Oh great vizier, you seek to wound me with words when you cannot win a fair fight.”
“More like a slave mashes a gnat. To my knowledge, you never fight fair, Tuma.”
“Fine. Stop talking.” One hand slid from Rashid’s sweat-slick shoulder as Tomás prepared to release him. “We’re late for dinner. But fetch your sword. In the next move, I step to protect you. To do this, I must— ”
A cry rang out from the rooftop of Rashid’s house.
Before his servant Qasim could shriek a second time, Tomás scrambled up the trellised bougainvillea, sword in one hand.